Before The Onion, the most famous humor magazine to come out of Madison was the University of Wisconsin Octopus, b. November 1919, d. 1959, after UW officials found the May issue so offensive they extinguished the title. The editors did ask for it: On one page they reproduced an official warning to quit printing smut like the previous issue; on the others they parodied Playboy. The cover of “Blayboy” — a takeoff on Playboy’s for the same month — showed the mag’s eight-handed mascot joining three startled young ladies in a bubble bath. Bye bye, Octy.
Sixty years on, Wisconsin seems willing to forgive and remember: There are now 281 Octopus issues in the UW Digital Collection, where they can be read by just anybody. “Blayboy” is represented only by a cover and its smutty predecessor is missing entirely, but most of the rest are on hand. Rather than link to individual issues, here’s the whole set.
Octy was UW’s third humor magazine, following the Sphinx (1899-1913) — also online, though I haven’t found any parody issues — and the short-lived Awk (1915-1917). It was started privately by three students who turned it over to the school after two profitable issues. The U. mostly left it alone, though a “risque cartoon” in 1928 “led for a time to a closer review of all material by the faculty majority on the Octy board of directors,” says UW’s official history. Despite vowing in its first editorial to make “no attempt to issue numbers regularly,” Octy appeared eight to ten times a year for 23 years before pausing for World War II. Its return in 1946 was misnumbered Vol. 25, an error never corrected.
Octy flourished in the ’20s. The history tells of “glossy, quarto-sized issues running as many as sixty-four pages, colored covers, clever cartoons and graphics by student artists, and humorous prose and poetry.” At the depth of the Depression issues shrank to sixteen pages and the price fell from a quarter to a dime, but for most of the ’30s Octy was “a handsome, professional-looking magazine, better in design that most of its peers, and nearly as attractive as Vanity Fair or [The] New Yorker, on both of whom it had a noticable crush,” according to uwalumni.com. It ranked high in college humor polls and sometimes addressed serious subjects: A 1938 story by future New York Times reporter Leonard Silk exposed the Fascist leanings of a new Wisconsin-based third party called the National Progressives, and in 1939 the mag ridiculed the DAR for not allowing Marian Anderson to sing at Independence Hall.
The first sign of postwar trouble was a nearly year-long gap after the December 1951 issue. When the mag reappeared in November 1952 it was briefly called The New Octopus, though editor Ken Eichenbaum joked(?) that it looked “so damn much like the old one that six of us have decided to hang it up and transfer to Marquette.” He didn’t even mention the long hiatus. Octy retrenched to six issues a year, briefly tried a “more mature” policy and hit the financial rocks in 1955-56. “Too many students are READING the Octy without BUYING it,” grumbled an ad in the May 1956 issue, which begged for a thousand students to pledge — “NOW!” — to subscribe next fall. They didn’t, and Octy vanished for three semesters, reappearing with three issues in spring 1958 and three more in ’58-59. The last twitch was an undated reprint collection the next year that failed to spark a fourth revival. Three decades would pass before UW produced another nationally known humor rag.
II: The Parodies
Though it modeled a cover on France’s racy La Vie Parisienne its first year, Octy produced few parodies before the 1930s and only about two dozen total. Nearly half were of the student newspaper, always impersonated under its real name: the Daily Cardinal. Most Cardinal parodies appeared as magazine pages on authentic (and cheaper) newsprint, though in 1953 a tabloid was printed separately and folded into the March number. (Such inserts tend to stray; the UWDC has the mag but no paper.) Octy’s “Cardinals” were dryer and funnier than most such efforts and not afraid to razz local heavyweights, including Wisconsin’s junior U.S. Senator from 1947 to 1957, Joe McCarthy.
Octy’s first big parodee was the Police Gazette, traditional reading matter of barber shops and saloons. It was a relic of grandpa’s day even in 1929, but the Bootleg Era saw the 1890s the way later generations saw the ’20s: as the last time people knew how to have fun. This foolery was followed by a jaundiced look at Hearst’s jingoistic Sunday magazine The American Weekly in 1935 and an even sharper mauling of the arch-Republican Chicago Tribune in ’38, cowritten by Leonard Silk. Octy didn’t attempt a cover-to-cover parody until 1949, when it put Republican Gov. Oscar Rennebohm, a very dark horse in the 1952 presidential stakes, inside the red borders of “Timf.” After that, parodies came out almost annually.
The 1949 Badger yearbook called “Timf” the magazine’s “best post-war issue” and claimed it outsold the Daily Cardinal. The 1950 edition called “The Old Yorker” “the editorial and financial high point of the year.” My choice for best mock Oc is 1953’s “Liff.” Too many college parodists were content to focus Life’s wide-ranging lens on their own anthills and play the findings relatively straight; Octy highjacked the format to satirize Hollywood movies, Congressional hearings, cheesecake photos and Life itsef: “We do not believe in slanting words or pictures,” the lead editorial declared. “People look too thin that way.” Even the Korean stalemate was played for laughs in the “war memoirs” of a male-turned-female photographer named after Marguerite Higgins but inspired by Christine (née George) Jorgensen, who in early 1953 was as famous as Mamie Eisenhower.
Octy’s oddest parody was “Flare,” a sendup of Flair. The brainchild of Fleur Cowles, wife of Look publisher Garnder Cowles, Flair was a lavish monthly blend of heavyweight bylines, trendy arts coverage and innovative graphic design, featuring pekaboo covers, half-size and translucent pages, bound-in booklets and accordion foldouts. It appeared for exactly one year starting February 1950 and was four months dead when “Flare” appeared in May 1951. Two years later, a parody of campus mag The Wisconsin Idea coincided with the real thing’s last issue. Thereafter Octy picked sturdier targets: Life, Mademoiselle, Time again (with Athletic Director Ivan B. Williamson on the cover) and, fatally, Playboy.
Octopus Parodies of the Wisconsin Daily Cardinal, 1932-1958:
(Issues are listed by volume and number in the Digital Collection, so I’ve included that.)
- The Daily Cardinal, Vol. 13, no. 6, Feb. 1932 (16 pages + 1 cover)
- —–, Vol. 15, no. 6, Feb. 1934 (18, some with real ads)
- —–, Vol. 18, no. 6, Feb. 1937 (13, inc. 3-page “Collegiate Digest” photo section)
- —–, Vol. 20, no. 8, April 1939 (4)
- —–, Vol. 22, no. 3, Nov. 1941 (4)
- —–, Vol. 25, no.6, Feb. 1947 (4)
- —–, Vol. 26, no. 6, Feb. 1948 (8 + 1c)
- —–, Vol. 27, no.7, March 1949 (8 + 1c)
- —–, Vol. 28, no. 3, Nov. 1949 (8 + 1c)
- —–, Vol. 29, no. 5, Feb.-March 1951 (8, called “1950 ” online)
- —–, Vol. 31, no. 4, March 1953 (insert, not online)
- —–, (“Tri-Weakly Cardinal”), Vol. 32, no. 5, March 1954 (8)
- —–, Summer 1958 (4, tabloid)
Other Octopus Parodies, 1920-1959:
- La Vie Parisienne (“La Vie Wisconsienne”), Vol. 1, no. 5, May 1920 (cover only)
- Police Gazette, Vol. 11, no. 1, September 25, 1929 (16 + 1c)
- American Weekly (“American Weakly”), Vol. 17, no. 4, Dec. 1935 (10) (called “Vol. 15 ” online)
- Chicago Daily Tribune, Vol. 20. no. 4, December 1938 (4)
- Life (article: “Life Discloses the Happy Weekend of a Wisconsin Coed”), Vol. 21, no. 3, Nov. 1939 (1)
- Time (“Timf”), Vol. 27, no. 5, Jan. 18, 1949 (44 + 4c)
- The New Yorker (“The Old Yorker”), Vol. 28, no. 8, April 1950 (40 + 4c)
- Flair (“Flare”), Vol. 29, no. 7, May 1951 (36 + 4c)
- The Wisconsin Idea (“The Wisconsin Idear”), Vol. 31, no. 4, March 1953 (10)
- Life (“Liff”), Vol. 31, no. 5, April 1953 (40 + 4c)
- Mademoiselle (“Madmoiselle … and the Arts”), Vol. 33, no. 2, Dec. 1954, (28 + 4c)
- Time (“Tum”), Vol. 34, no. 4, Feb. 1956 (28 + 4c)
- Playboy (“Blayboy”), May 1959 (not online)
E. David Cronon and John W. Jenkins. The University of Wisconsin: A History: Volume III: Politics, Depression, and War, 1925-1945 (U. of Wisconsin Press, 1994), pp 626-629.
Matt Rogge. “Through the Eyes of the Octopus,” uwalumni.com, posted July 12, 2017.